20190518-S50-Tomi Ingalls

Sportsmanship Award winner Tomi Ingalls.

In many ways, Tomi Ingalls is at heart a performer. There’s the incessant smile. The big hugs. The laugh. The love for the spotlight, not in a pretentious way, but unassumingly.

“She wants always to be the star,” Ray MacLean, a special education teacher at Keene High School notes, in a light tone. “She always wanted to get in the game, too. She’d always come to me and say, ‘Can I go in now; can I go in?’

“She’s one of those kids that everyone in the building says hi to. When the school holds a sports pep rally, Tomi and the unified team get the biggest cheer of any of the sports.”

Keene High senior Page Rountree wouldn’t disagree.

“Just going to practice, you could be upset, and then see Tomi and instantly it put a smile on your face. She liked to call us ‘chicken butts.’ It’d make us giggle and totally forget about what was making us upset.

“At times, she might try to scare you, or pretend to shock you, and you’d have to pretend to do the same.”

It’s good life perspective, she said, a reminder of what’s really important and how easily simple things are taken for granted.

Rountree is a partner player on the Keene High School unified basketball team. Tomi, who turned 21 in April and who has Down syndrome, is a member of the team.

Tomi is this year’s Sentinel 50 female Sportsmanship Award winner.

She wins over teammates, fans and opponents, those who know her say, and her love for sport and the friends it provides is as genuine as genuine gets.

Her mother, Aerie Ingalls, will tell you about the wonderful social and educational benefits that school and sports have given Tomi.

“Middle school wasn’t easy for us,” she said. “But Tomi’s experience with unified sports, and the students behind it, was instrumental in setting a new tone. And the way life skills are treated (at Keene High), it’s been so different than what my expectations were.”

But what Tomi has gotten for her experience is surpassed by what those who have worked with her have taken away. Rountree is one. In the fall, she will attend Western Carolina University and study either occupational therapy or special education.

“My experience with Tomi, and her infectious attitude and spirit, definitely impacted what I want to do.”

Down syndrome is a disorder that causes developmental and intellectual delays.

Tomi is a 12-plus season athlete at Keene High. She left school April 5, when she turned 21 and thus aged out.

“It was a sad day,” Rountree said, “but it was also a great day because we were all celebrating Tomi and what she had done.”

Special education students in the school’s life skills program can graduate with their class. But, MacLean said, more often the goal is not so much a high school diploma as preparing those students for life; to teach them about work and daily living. But we want them to have a high school experience that’s as close as what everyone else has as you can make it.”

Tomi played basketball, soccer and competed in track and field, usually in the 50-meter and 200-meter runs and the shot put.

In a video interview, Tomi told The Sentinel she loves basketball because it helped her to make friends.

Aerie credited four students early on in her daughter’s time at Keene High for changing her course. They were Alex Parenteau, Isaiah Singer, Brendan Corrigan, Noah Clay and Chance Glinka. “A fantastic group of young men,” she said. “I’ll always remember them. These are boys who opened the door to show unified sports could be cool, and these boys could have been on varsity team.”

But really, she said, the list of those students who have taken time to compete in unified sports as partners is long and what makes the program at the school “so special.”

Unified sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It’s a growing concept, and it allows young people with disabilities a chance to play on their school sports teams.

Rountree said it’s one of the best things she’s been involved in. “I was told by friends that did it that it was a great experience, and it has been.”

Tomi helped make it so, she said.

“Tomi has a charisma about her that makes everyone fall in love with her,” MacLean added. “She’s a hot ticket. She knows what she wants to do, and she goes out and does it.”

Aerie said she’s hopeful that Tomi might land an internship with the hospital through the Project Search program, which would last the duration of a school year.

“We have our fingers crossed on that one,” Tomi’s mother said. It would keep her involved and engaged in the community.”

Otherwise, she said, she will help to seek appropriate part-time employment for Tomi “to help her get her feet wet in the workforce.”

MacLean had no reservations.

“Tomi’s gonna make someone a wonderful employee.”